Atlanta is a city with a long, powerful history of activism, from the Civil Rights movement to modern organizing that has ushered in unprecedented voter turnout in recent Georgia elections. And with the recent indictment of former President Trump by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, it is also the legal battleground where the fight to defend and uphold our nation’s democracy is currently centered. Atlanta residents are proud to live and raise their families in a city that has served as a cradle of the civil rights movement. The recent suppressive actions demonstrated by some City of Atlanta leaders are an insult to this legacy.
Anti-voter efforts to stifle opposition to the construction of a new police training facility in the South River Forest—referred to by some residents and opponents as ‘Cop City’ – have reached a fever pitch. This week, opponents of ‘Cop City’ submitted over 116,000 signatures to the City of Atlanta in support of a referendum, the first citizen-led ballot initiative in recent memory, and one of the first in the state. The proposed facility has prompted vocal protests in the Atlanta community, and has drawn widespread criticism from environmental justice and criminal legal reform organizations both within the state of Georgia and nationwide. The petition was met with pushback from the City of Atlanta, in addition to attempts by city leaders to disqualify the referendum in court.
It is clear we are at an inflection point for democracy in Atlanta, and organizations committed to advocating on behalf of voters and access to the ballot can no longer remain silent. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the fact remains that some Atlanta leaders are not listening to the voters who elected them to represent their community and values. Instead, they are following the same tired anti-voter playbook that has been wielded against voters of color for generations: moving the goal posts for change, defaulting to less transparency, hiding behind courts and falling back on the same shameful anti-voter tactics being deployed by extremists across the country to stifle political participation and dissent. These actions are designed to silence the voices of voters—and they cannot stand.
Atlantans know better than most that Georgia has long been the battleground where attacks on our democracy first gain traction. We know firsthand that suppressive efforts in the state continue to serve as a blueprint for anti-voter extremists across the country, who are similarly working to silence the voices of voters deemed undesirable. The 2021 passage of the omnibus anti-voter law SB 202 re-established Georgia as the testing ground for attacks on voter access and election administration, which we are now seeing replicated in states across the country. The suppressive tactics deployed by those in power have gone so far as to provide cover for bad actors like Attorney General Chris Carr to attack bail funds and the right to protest, using disturbing anti-democratic tactics meant to chill free speech and other constitutionally-enshrined rights.
The recent anti-voter actions by the City of Atlanta do not exist in a silo. When considered alongside last month’s indictment of President Trump, the imperative for local leaders to uphold our democracy is magnified a hundred fold. The former president’s election denial conspiracies birthed a new anti-democratic movement that produced anti-voter legislation, threats to election workers, and undermined faith in democracy with lies and false allegations. As a result, we are currently witnessing a nationally-coordinated effort by far-right extremists, who are using every tool at their disposal to undo the will of voters and silence the voices of reform-minded elected officials. In Georgia, this is playing out in the form of mass voter challenges, burdensome regulations for election workers, and ongoing efforts to push access to the ballot even further out of reach for some of Georgia’s most vulnerable communities. The last thing our communities need is for the City of Atlanta to deploy the same extremist tactics intended to silence voters’ voices and stifle their political power.
Democracy is hard-won—especially in Georgia. Regardless of party, we must never stop fighting for it. Atlanta’s elected leaders owe it to their constituents to uphold the tenets of our democracy and move forward with the referendum on Cop City. They owe it to their constituents to be better. The choice is clear: model suppressive actions to further empower anti-voter bad actors in Georgia and across the country, or demonstrate to all those watching what democracy in action truly looks like.
Cianti Stewart-Reid is an Atlanta resident and the Executive Director of Fair Fight Action, a 501(c)(4) organization that works to promote fair elections around the country, encourage voter participation, and educate voters about elections and voting rights.